Counselling For Porn Addiction

Because of porn’s addictive nature, porn consumers usually need an ever-increasing dosage over time in order to feel the same level of enjoyment, and they often have to seek out more extreme and hard-core forms of porn. Porn consumers can reach a point where they enjoy porn less and less, but want it more and more.

Have you ever wondered how pornographers who charge for their material stay in business when there’s so much porn available for free? As Wendy Seltzer—an attorney and fellow at Yale Law School—explained, the answer is actually pretty simple: once porn consumers get hooked, they’ll want more and more. “Seeing [free porn] just whets their appetite for more,” Seltzer said. “Once they get through what’s available for free, they’ll move into the paid services.” 

How can pornographers be so sure? The answer is right there inside the brain.

Like any potentially addictive substance, porn triggers the release of dopamine into a part of the brain called the reward center (a.k.a. reward pathway or system).  Basically, the reward center’s job is to make you feel good whenever you do something healthy, like eating a great meal, having sex, or getting a good workout.  The “high” you get makes you want to repeat the behavior again and again.  Your brain is hardwired to motivate you to do things that will improve your health and chance of survival. 
Researchers have recently discovered that the reward center is actually two different brain systems, a “Liking” system and a “Wanting” system, that work in different—sometimes opposite—ways.

Liking

The “Liking” system is a tiny portion of the reward center.  It provides the enjoyable feelings you get when you win a game, share a kiss, or experience any natural, healthy reward.  Unfortunately, it also lights up for counterfeit rewards like cigarettes, drugs, or porn, which is why addictive substances feel enjoyable at first. 
When something activates your reward center and you feel that intense high from the “Liking” system, your brain starts producing a chemical called CREB.  CREB acts kind of like a set of brakes on the reward system.  Normally it makes the pleasure fade and leaves you feeling satiated and ready to get on with your life.

But if the “Liking” system gets stimulated too much over time (as often happens with drugs or porn), CREB levels build up until your whole pleasure response goes numb.  Some researchers believe that an excess of CREB is the reason addicts experience tolerance, which means that they feel less enjoyment from the stimulant and need to use more of it to reach a high.  In fact, too much CREB floating around in your brain can dull the enjoyment of anything, which may be why addicts often feel bored, detached, and depressed. 

Wanting

The “Wanting” system is a much larger area in the reward center, and it causes the brain to rewire itself in response to intense pleasure.  With the help of a protein called DeltaFosB, the “Wanting” system builds new brain connections so you can remember the experience and repeat it later. 

It’s called the “Wanting” system because those new nerve connections make you crave the pleasurable experience.  The more often the experience is repeated, the stronger those nerve connections become, and the stronger the cravings grow.  DeltaFosB is sometimes called “the molecular switch for addiction” because it reinforces cravings and, if it builds up enough in the brain, it can switch on genes that leave the consumer more vulnerable to addiction. 
DeltaFosB doesn’t just make you remember the pleasurable experience itself; it also forms connections to details associated with the experience. These associations (called “cues”) are found with all kind of addictions.  For a smoker, a cue may be the smell of cigarette smoke. An alcoholic may develop pathways triggered by the sight of a bottle or the voice of a drinking buddy. Cues can be anything the brain associates with the experience. For a porn consumer, it may be the memory of a porn scene or a place or time of day he or she can be alone with the internet. For an addict, the whole world starts to seem like a collection of cues and triggers leading them back to their addiction.  Gradually, the porn pathways become sensitized, meaning they are easily triggered by the cues that are all around. 
Wait! Didn’t we say that CREB dulls the nerves, making them less sensitive? Now we’re saying that DeltaFosB makes them more sensitive. Well, which is it?
Actually, both. Remember, we’re talking about two different brain systems. With repeated exposure to porn, the “Wanting” system grows more sensitive to the cues that cause cravings. At the same time, the “Liking” system grows less sensitive to pleasure. That’s the awful irony of any addiction: the user wants it more and more, even while he or she likes it less and less.
Porn is an escalating behavior because as some consumers develop tolerance, the porn that used to excite them starts to seem boring. Predictably, they often try to compensate by spending more time with porn and/or seeking out more hardcore material in an effort to regain the excitement they used to feel.  Many porn consumers find themes of aggression, violence, and increasingly “edgy” acts creeping into their porn habits and fantasies.  But no matter how shocking their tastes become, you can bet there will be pornographers waiting to sell it to them.
If you are, or know someone who is, being pulled into more and more porn, it’s not too late! It’s possible to quit porn and replace it with healthy habits. The brain can start to heal, and consumers can regain the ability to fully feel and enjoy their lives again. Thousands already have.

How Porn Affects Sexual Tastes

Many porn consumers find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or things that they might have previously considered to be inappropriate or unethical. As individuals consume more extreme and dangerous sex acts, they gradually begin to feel that those behaviors are more common and acceptable than they really are.

As you’d probably guess, rats don’t like the smell of death.
But a researcher named Jim Faust wondered whether that instinct could be changed, so he sprayed female rats with a liquid that smelled like a dead, rotting rat. When he put them in cages with virgin male rats, a strange thing happened. The drive to mate was so powerful that it overcame the instinct to avoid the smell, and the rats hit it off. Actually, that’s not so strange. The strange part was what happened next.

Once the male rats had learned to associate sex with the smell of death, Faust put them in cages with different objects to play with. The male rats actually preferred to play with the object that smelled like death, as if it were soaked in something they loved! 
We know what you’re thinking: “Now I know what I should have done for my science fair project!” No, seriously, that’s pretty gross, right? You’re probably wondering how rats could possibly be trained to go against such a powerful natural instinct. Well, here’s how:
Rats, humans, and all mammals have something in their brain called a “reward center.” Part of the reward center’s job is to promote healthy living by rewarding you when you do something that either keeps you alive (e.g., eating) or creates a new life (e.g., sex), or enriches your life (e.g. building satisfying relationships).  The way it rewards you is by pumping a cocktail of “pleasure chemicals” through your brain. 

Those chemicals do more than make you feel great. While you’re enjoying that good feeling, your brain is also building new nerve pathways to connect the pleasure you’re feeling to the activity you’re doing.  It’s the brain’s way of making sure that whatever you’re doing, you’ll come back to it again. The association between the activity and the “reward” happens automatically, even if you don’t intend it, because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” 
The reward center is usually a pretty great thing, even if it didn’t work out so well for those poor rats. Normally our brain attracts us to healthy behaviors and encourages us to form life-supporting habits.  But when those reward chemicals get connected to something harmful, it has the opposite effect.
The same process that rewired those rats’ preferences—connecting the pleasure they felt during sex to the stench of death—is triggered in human brains by porn. Porn consumers may think they’re just being entertained, but their brains are busy at work building connections between their feelings of arousal and whatever’s happening on their screen.  And since consumers of porn typically become accustomed to the porn they’ve already seen and have to constantly move on to more extreme forms of pornography to get aroused,  the kind of porn consumed usually changes over time.

 In a survey of 1,500 young adult men, 56% said their tastes in porn had become “increasingly extreme or deviant.”   Just like the rats, many porn consumers eventually find themselves getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or things that they might have previously considered to be inappropriate or unethical.   In many cases, porn consumers find their tastes so changed that they can no longer respond sexually to their actual partners, though they can still respond to porn. 
Once consumers start viewing extreme and dangerous sex acts, things that they thought were disgusting or degrading can start to seem normal, acceptable, and more common than they really are.  One study found that people exposed to significant amounts of porn thought things like sex with animals and violent sex were twice as common as what those not exposed to porn thought.  And when people believe a behavior is normal, they’re more likely to try it. 
Porn consumers are more likely to express attitudes supporting violence against women, and studies have shown a strong correlation between men’s porn consumption and their likelihood to victimize women.   In fact, a 2015 peer-reviewed research study that analyzed 22 different studies from 7 different countries concluded that there is “little doubt that, on the average, individuals who consume pornography more frequently are more likely to hold attitudes [supporting] sexual aggression and engage in actual acts of sexual aggression.”
Obviously, not everyone who looks at porn is going to turn into a rapist, but the reality is that even casual pornography consumption has the power to change ideas and attitudes.  When that happens, changes to behavior aren’t far behind. But spreading the truth about the harmful effects of porn helps limit its influence. Porn can corrupt our deepest, most basic instincts, but deep down at that same instinctive level, we know and want what’s healthy. We crave happiness and love. And every individual decision to focus on real love and real relationships moves us back toward the robust, natural lives we’re wired to pursue.

How Porn Can Become Addictive

A lot of people are convinced that there’s no such thing as an addiction to porn. But science disproved the old belief that in order to have an addiction to something it has to involve a substance that is physically put into the body; like with cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. Excessive consumption of internet porn bears all of the signs, and dangers, of a true addiction.

Research shows that of all of the forms of online entertainment—like gambling, gaming, surfing, and social networking—porn has the strongest tendency to be addictive. 
Doctors and scientists used to believe that in order to have an addiction to something it has to involve a substance that is physically put into the body; like with cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs.  But once scientists started to look inside the brain, it changed our understanding of how addictions work.  What’s important, we now know, is not necessarily what gets inside the body or how it got there, but rather what reactions it triggers in the brain. Cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs bring foreign chemicals into the body in a myriad of ways: sniffed, injected, drunk from a glass, or lit on fire and smoked. Porn and other behavioral addictions, like gambling, on the other hand, bring no new chemicals or substances into the body that weren’t already there. But, these behaviors initiate strikingly similar processes inside the brain like substance addictions, and that’s what makes them potentially addictive. They hijack the brain’s reward pathways.   That’s what every addictive substance and habit do. 
Porn may enter through a different “how” and be a different “what,” but it ultimately does the very same things. 
See, your brain comes equipped with something called a “reward center.”  Its job is to motivate you to do things that protect and promote your survival—things like eating to stay alive or having sex to produce babies.  The way it rewards you for doing those things is by flooding your brain with dopamine and a cocktail of other “pleasure” chemicals each time you do. 
But your brain doesn’t always reward you for the right things. For example, it produces higher levels of dopamine when you have chocolate cake than it does for whole-wheat bread.  Why? Because 3,000 years ago, high-calorie foods were really hard to come by, so when our ancestors found them, they needed to eat a whole bunch while they had the chance.  These days, a bag of Oreos is only as far as the nearest supermarket. If we gorged on them every chance we got, we’d have heart disease and a lot of other health problems.
Porn is basically sexual junk food. When a person is looking at porn, their brain is fooled into pumping out dopamine just as if they really were seeing a potential mate.  Sure, filling your brain with feel-good chemicals might sound like a great idea at first, but just like with junk food, it’s more dangerous than it seems.
When porn enters the brain, it triggers the reward center to start pumping out dopamine, which sets off a cascade of chemicals including a protein called DeltaFosB.   DeltaFosB’s regular job is to build new nerve pathways to mentally connect what someone is doing (i.e. consuming porn) to the pleasure he or she feels.  Those strong new memories outcompete other connections in the brain, making it easier and easier to return to porn. 
But DeltaFosB has another job, and this is why its nickname is “the molecular switch for addiction.”  If enough DeltaFosB builds up, it flips a genetic switch, causing lasting changes in the brain that leave the user more vulnerable to addiction.  For teens, this risk is especially high because a teen’s reward center in the brain responds two to four times more powerfully than an adult’s brain, releases higher levels of dopamine and produces more DeltaFosB.
Overloaded with dopamine, the brain will try to defend itself by releasing another chemical called CREB  (It’s called CREB because no one wants to have to say its real name: cyclic adenosine monophosphate response element binding protein!) CREB is like the brakes on a runaway reward center; it slows the pleasure response.  With CREB onboard, porn that once excited a person stops having the same effect.  Scientists believe that CREB is partly why consumers have to keep increasing their porn intake to get aroused.  That numbed-out state is called “tolerance,” and it’s part of any kind of addiction. 
As porn consumers become desensitized from repeated overloads of dopamine, they often find they can’t feel normal without a dopamine high.  Even other things that used to make them happy, like going out with friends or playing a favorite game, stop providing enjoyment because of the dulling effects of CREB.  They experience strong cravings and often find themselves giving more of their time and attention to porn, sometimes to the detriment of relationships, school, or work.  Some report feeling anxious or down until they can get back to their porn.  As they delve deeper into the habit, their porn of choice often turns increasingly hard-core.  And many who try to break their porn habits report finding it really difficult to stop. 
If this sounds like the classic symptoms of addiction, well….the head of the United States’ National Institute on Drug Abuse agrees.

How Porn Changes The Brain

Repeated consumption of porn causes the brain to literally rewire itself. It triggers the brain to pump out chemicals and form new nerve pathways, leading to profound and lasting changes in the brain.
Believe it or not, studies show that those who consume pornography more frequently have brains that are less connected, less active, and even smaller in some areas.
To be fair, the studies only show that there’s a correlation between porn consumption and smaller, less active brains, but they raise the question: Can porn literally change your brain?
Scientists used to believe that once you finished childhood, your brain lost the ability to grow.  They thought that nothing except illness or injury could physically alter an adult brain. Now we know that the brain goes on changing throughout life,  constantly rewiring itself and laying down new nerve connections, and that this is particularly true in our youth. See, the brain is made up of about 100 billion special nerves called neurons,  that carry electrical signals back and forth between parts of the brain and out to the rest of the body. Imagine you’re learning to play an E chord on the guitar: your brain sends a signal to your hand telling it what to do. As that signal zips along from neuron to neuron, those activated nerve cells start to form connections because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Those newly-connected neurons form what’s called a “neuronal pathway.”
Think of a neuronal pathway like a trail in the woods. Every time someone uses the trail, it gets a little wider and more permanent. Similarly, every time a message travels down a neuronal pathway, the pathway gets stronger.  With enough repetitions, your neuronal pathway will get so strong you’ll be strumming that E chord without even thinking about it. That process of building better, faster neuronal pathways is how we learn any new skill, whether it’s memorizing math formulas or driving a car. Practice makes perfect.
But there’s a catch. Your brain is a very hungry organ. It may only weigh 2% of your body weight, but it eats up 20% of your energy and oxygen,  so resources are scarce up there in your head. There’s some pretty fierce competition between brain pathways, and those that don’t get used enough will likely be replaced.  Use it or lose it, as they say. Only the strong survive.
That’s where porn comes in.
Porn happens to be fantastic at forming new, long-lasting pathways in the brain. In fact, porn is such a ferocious competitor that hardly any other activity can compete with it, including actual sex with a real partner.  That’s right, porn can actually overpower the brain’s natural ability to have real sex! Why? As Dr. Norman Doidge, a researcher at Columbia University, explains, porn creates the perfect conditions and triggers the release of the right chemicals to make lasting changes in the brain.

Conditions

The ideal conditions for forming strong neuronal pathways are when you’re in what scientists call “flow.” Flow is “a deeply satisfying state of focused attention.”  When you’re in flow, you get so deep into what you’re doing that nothing else seems to matter.  You’ve probably experienced it before, playing a game or having a conversation with friends or reading a great book. You were so focused on what you were doing that you lost track of time, and everything around you disappeared. You wanted it to keep going forever. That’s flow.
When you’re in flow, it’s like you have superhuman abilities. Athletes call it being “in the zone,” when you seem to do everything right. Your focus is intense. Your memory is phenomenal. Years later, you’ll still recall exact words of the conversation or details of what you read.
Now imagine someone sitting in front of the computer at 3:00 in the morning, looking at porn. That person is so absorbed in his or her porn trance that nothing else can compete for the consumer’s attention, not even sleep. This person is in the ideal condition for forming neuronal pathways, and that’s what they are doing. Clicking from page to page in search of the perfect image, not realizing that every image seen is reinforcing the pathways the consumer is forging in his or her brain. By now, those images are burned so deeply into their mind that they will remember them for a long time to come, maybe the entirety of their life.

Chemicals

Like other addictive substances and behaviors, porn activates the part of the brain called the reward center,  triggering the release of a cocktail of chemicals that give you a temporary buzz. One of the chemicals in that cocktail is a protein called DeltaFosB. 
Remember when we said that building neuronal pathways is like making a trail in the woods? Well, DeltaFosB is like a troop of mountaineers out there with picks and shovels, working like beavers to groom the trail. With DeltaFosB floating around, the brain is primed to make strong mental connections between the porn being consumed by individuals and the pleasure they feel while consuming.  Basically, the DeltaFosB is saying, “This feels good. Let’s be sure to remember it so we can do it again.”
DeltaFosB is important for learning any kind of new skills, but it can also lead to addictive/compulsive behaviors,  especially in adolescents.  DeltaFosB is referred to as “the molecular switch for addiction,”  because if it builds up enough in the brain, it switches on genes that create long-term cravings, driving the user back for more.  And once it has been released, DeltaFosB sticks around in the brain for weeks or months, which is why porn consumers may feel strong cravings for porn long after they’ve stopped the habit. 
The good news is, neuroplasticity works both ways. If porn pathways aren’t reinforced, they’ll eventually disappear, so the same brain mechanisms that lay down pathways for porn can replace them with something else.  

How Porn Affects The Brain Like A Drug

I t may be surprising, but porn affects the brain in ways very similar to harmful substances, like tobacco. Studies have shown that porn stimulates the same areas of the brain as addictive drugs, making the brain release the same chemicals. And just like drugs, porn triggers pathways in the brain that cause craving, leading users back for more and more extreme “hits” to get high.

On the surface, tobacco and porn don’t seem to have much in common. One is kept behind the counter at the gas station or supermarket because of its well-known harmful effects; the other is available virtually anywhere. One can quickly become an expensive habit while the other comes free with an internet connection. And let’s be honest, Hugh Hefner doesn’t exactly conjure images of a secretive tobacco executive.

In case you’re not a neurosurgeon, here’s a crash course in how the brain works. Deep inside the brain, there’s something called a “reward center.”  You’ve got one. Your dog’s got one. For mammals, it comes standard. The reward center’s job is to release “pleasure” chemicals into your brain whenever you do something healthy, like eating tasty food, doing a hard workout, or enjoying a kiss.  The “high” you get from that chemical rush makes you want to repeat that behavior again and again.  Thanks to your reward center, your brain is hardwired to motivate you to do things that will improve your health and chances of survival.  It’s a great system…normally.
The problem is, the brain can be tricked.
When addictive substances are used, they give the brain a “false signal.”  Since the brain can’t tell the difference between the drugs and a real, healthy reward, it goes ahead and activates the reward center.  An important chemical called dopamine is released, which makes the brain start developing a craving for the fake reward.  As long as there’s a lot of dopamine floating around in the brain, the cravings will keep getting stronger, and the consumer will feel super-motivation to keep pursuing more of the drug.  Essentially, addictive drugs hijack the brain, turning it around and forcing it in a direction it was never meant to go. Instead of encouraging the consumer toward healthy behaviors, drugs lead the consumer into things that aren’t healthy at all, and can even be dangerous
Want to guess what else does that? Porn.
Researchers have found that internet porn and addictive substances like tobacco have very similar effects on the brain,  and they are significantly different from how the brain reacts to healthy, natural pleasures like food or sex.  Think about it. When you’re munching a snack or enjoying a romantic encounter, eventually your cravings will drop and you’ll feel satisfied. Why? Because your brain has a built-in “off” switch for natural pleasures. “Dopamine cells stop firing after repeated consumption of a ‘natural reward’ (e.g. food or sex),” explains Nora Volkow, Director of The National Institute of Drug Abuse.  But addictive drugs go right on increasing dopamine levels without giving the brain a break.  The more hits drug users take, the more dopamine floods their brain, and the stronger their urges are to keep using. That’s why drug addicts find it so hard to stop once they take the first hit. “[O]ne hit may turn into many hits, or even a lost weekend.”
What else has the power to keep pumping dopamine endlessly into the brain? You guessed it: porn.
Scientists have long known that sexual interest and performance can be increased simply by introducing something new—like a different sexual position, a toy, or a change of partner.  That’s because the brain responds to new sexual stimuli by pumping out more and more dopamine, flooding the brain just like a drug would.  And “new” is exactly what internet porn sites provide: an endless stream of fresh erotic images delivered at high speed, in vivid color, 24/7. Before consumers even start to get bored, they can always give themselves another dopamine boost just by clicking on something different, something more stimulating and hardcore than before. 
In fact, porn consumption follows a very predictable pattern that’s eerily similar to drug use. Over time, excessive levels of “pleasure” chemicals cause the porn consumer’s brain to develop tolerance, just like the brain of a drug user.  In the same way that a junkie eventually requires more and more of a drug to get a buzz or even feel normal, regular porn consumers will end up turning to porn more often or seeking out more extreme versions—or both—to feel excited again.  And once the porn habit is established, quitting can even lead to withdrawal symptoms similar to drugs. 
But there’s good news too. Even those with serious porn habits can break away and reclaim their lives.